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  • Professional Community and Professional Development in the Learning-Centered School

    W O R K I N GP A P E R

    B E S TPRACTICESN E A R E S E A R C H

    Judith Warren LittleUniversity of California, Berkeley

    December 2006

  • Professional Community and Professional Development in the Learning-Centered School

    Judith Warren LittleUniversity of California, Berkeley

    December 2006

    W O R K I N GP A P E R

    B E S TPRACTICESN E A R E S E A R C H

  • The views presented in this publication should not be construed as representing the policy orposition of the National Education Association. The publication expresses the views of its authorand is intended to facilitate informed discussion by educators, policymakers, and others inter-ested in educational reform.

    A limited supply of complimentary copies of this publication is available from NEA Researchfor NEA state and local associations, and UniServ staff. Additional copies may be purchased fromthe NEA Professional Library, Distribution Center, P.O. Box 404846, Atlanta, GA 30384-4846.Telephone, toll free, 1/800-229-4200, for price information. For online orders, go towww.nea.org/books.

    Reproduction: No part of this report may be reproduced in any form without permission fromNEA Research, except by NEA-affiliated associations. Any reproduction of the report materialsmust include the usual credit line and copyright notice. Address communications to Editor,NEA Research.

    Cover photo copyright NEA 2006.

    Copyright 2006 by the National Education AssociationAll Rights Reserved

    National Education Association1201 16th Street, N.W.Washington, DC 20036-3290

  • iii

    The Author

    Judith Warren Little is Carol Liu Professor of Education Policy in the Graduate School ofEducation at the University of California, Berkeley. Her research focuses on teachers work andcareers, the contexts of teaching, and policies and practices of professional development.Dr. Little is an elected member of the National Academy of Education.

  • v

    Contents

    The Schools Stake in Teacher Learning . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2

    Four Goals for Teacher Learning . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2

    Why Focus on the School? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3

    Professional Development Rooted in Goals and Problems of Teaching and Learning . . . . . . 4

    Problems of Practice and the Instructional Triangle . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4

    From Problems of Practice to Professional Development . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6

    Building Subject Knowledge for Teaching and Learning . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7

    Focusing on Students Thinking and Evidence of Learning . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8

    Preparing for Student Diversity . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11

    Professional Community in Support of Teaching and Learning . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14

    What Professional Community Is and Why It Matters . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15

    Cultivating Professional Community for Teacher Learning and School Improvement . . . . 16

    Linking Professional Development and Professional Community . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 20

    Investing in High-Quality Professional Development . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 20

    Conclusion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 22

    References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 23

  • 1

    This paper focuses on professional development and pro-fessional community as foundations of the learning-cen-tered school. Its purpose is to marshal research evidencethat can be used productively to enhance professionallearning and thereby to nourish such a school. To establishbenchmarks for best practice, the paper begins with anoverview of the goals that professional learning serves,suggests strategic content priorities, and ends with a dis-cussion of effective approaches or means. It is addressed toschool leadersespecially teachers and administratorswho must identify priorities for professional developmentand allocate scarce professional development resources in

    ways that will improve instruction and enhance childrenssuccess in school.

    As will become apparent, the research is uneven (for arecent review, see Borko 2005). We know more about thecharacteristics of high-quality formal professional devel-opment (typically outside the school) than we do aboutthe content, processes, and outcomes of ongoing, informal

    For more than two decades, research has shown that teachers who experience frequent,rich learning opportunities have in turn been helped to teach in more ambitious andeffective ways. Yet few teachers gain access to such intensive professional learning opportu-

    nities.1 More typically, teachers experience professional development as episodic, superficial,

    and disconnected from their own teaching interests or recurring problems of practice. This

    prevailing patterna few rich opportunities, many disappointing onesspeaks both to the

    promise and to the limitations of professional development, as it is typically organized. An

    important part of this enduring story centers on the schools and districts where teachers

    work and whether they are positioned well to foster professional learning opportunities that

    enhance the quality of teaching and learning.

    1 The evidence is consistent on this point. See findings from the nationallyrepresentative survey of elementary, middle, and high school teachersreported by Garet and others (2001) and the study of elementary teachersparticipation in mathematics professional development conducted by Cohenand Hill (2001).

  • workplace learning. We know a substantial amount abouthow to help teachers become effective in helping studentslearn core academic subjects (especially math and sci-ence), but our knowledge tends to come up short whenthose students are also learning English as a second lan-guage. We know more about the benefits of strong studentassessment practices than we do about how to help teach-ers incorporate such practices into daily instruction. Wehave begun to assemble rich portraits of teaching thatresponds to and builds on student diversity in ways thatsupport student learning, but we have little in the way ofresearch on related programs of professional develop-ment. The research provides more guidance for schools insome areas than in othersor, put another way, the les-sons from research do not map neatly or completely ontothe professional learning needs or interests of a givenschool. Nonetheless, it provides a worthy starting point.

    The Schools Stake in Teacher LearningThe basic premise of this paper is that a school is morelikely to be effective in supporting high levels of studentlearning and well-being when it also plays a powerful,deliberate, and consequential role in teacher learning. Asthe context most directly connected to the daily enterpriseof teaching and learning, the school has a stake in pursu-ing professional development purposes that together buildthe individual and collective expertise and commitment ofthe staff, sustain professional growth for both novice andveteran teachers, and equip the school to tackle its mostcentral goals, priorities, and problems.

    Four Goals for Teacher LearningThe schools stake in teacher learning may be expressed interms of a set of four broad, ambitious goals that join theneeds and interests of individual teachers to the collectiveneeds and interests of the school.

    Making Headway on the Schools Central Goals, Priorities, or ProblemsA key test of professional development lies in its capacity tomount a strong collective response to schoolwide problemsor goals. Some of these problems and goals arise out of abroad policy agenda affecting all schoolsraising the barof educational achievement and closing the achievementgap. Other problems and goals arise from teachers and par-ents interest in educational benefits that go beyond meas-ured academic achievement in tested subjects: studentsoverall intellectual growth; their social, moral, and politicaldevelopment; their independence and self-confidence; their

    aesthetic sensitivity; and more. Finally, some problems andgoals arise out of the specific circumstances of each school.For example, schools in some areas have experienced aflood of non-English-speaking immigrants over the pasttwo decades and reasonably expect that all or most teacherswill acquire expertise in teaching second-language learners.A well-wrought school plan would show evidence that pro-fessional development forms one part of a larger strategyfor pursuing ambitious levels of teaching and learning inthis school, with these students, in this community, andwith these resources.

    Building the Knowledge, Skill, and Disposition to Teach to High Standards The quality of a schools teaching staff can be judged by thedepth and breadth of knowledge, skill, and judgment thatteachers bring to their work, both individually and collec-tively. Sound hiring practices offer one resource in thisrespect, but hiring well-qualified teachers will not be suffi-cient to meet this goal. Insights into teachers expertise andtheir learning trajectories have multiplied as researchershave uncovered the complexities of teaching and the cog-nitive and social demands associated with learning to teachwell. Thus, one test of effective professional development iswhether teachers and other educators come to know moreover time about their subjects, students, and practice andto make informed use of what they know.

    Cultivating Strong Professional CommunityConducive to Learning and ImprovementResearch has steadily converged on the importance ofstrong teacher learning communities for teacher growthand commitment, suggesting as well their potential contri-bution to favorable student outcomes. Schools whose staffmembers espouse a shared responsibility for studentlearning and are organized to sustain a focus on instruc-tional improvement are more likely to yield higher levelsof student learning. Creating and sustaining robust pro-fessional learning communities is difficult, but researchprovides examples of what such communities look likeand helps illuminate the conditions that place them with-in reach. Effective professional development might thus bejudged by its capacity for building (and building on) thestructures and values, as well as the intellectual and lead-ership resources, of professional community.

    Sustaining Teachers Commitment to TeachingIndividuals experience professional development at particu-lar points in a teaching career and in conditions that bolster

    2 Professional Community and Professional Development

  • or erode commitment to teaching over time. Here, the testof professional development lies in teachers access to pro-fessional opportunities that afford them satisfaction, sup-port, and stimulation appropriate to their stage of careerand that make good use of their acquired expertise andexperience. Recent studies of teaching careers, derived pri-marily from in-depth biographical interviews, emphasizethe meanings that individuals attach to their work, the kindsof professional responsibilities they seek, and the identitiesand relationships they form. These studies draw attention tooverlooked intersections of professional career and profes-sional development (e.g., how particular teaching assign-ments build on, stimulate, or frustrate teacher learning).Such studies seem particularly consistent with recent initia-tives in the support and assessment of beginning teachersand the cultivation of networks, teacher research groups,and other manifestations of professional community.

    Why Focus on the School?Despite talk of site-based staff development, mostorganized professional development activity takes placeoutside the school. Furthermore, in an era of heightenedaccountability pressures, more districts are exercising con-trol over professional development, thus constrainingfunds and staff time at the school level. Yet an alternativevision of teacher learning is emerging from the research.School-based professional communities are the core of thesystem; these are purposefully and coherently linked withexternal professional development opportunities.

    Why focus on the school? First, and most simply, the school is where the work of

    teaching and learning resides. It is where the problems ofpractice take on a particular face, where pressures forachievement are most directly felt, and where investmentsin professional learning pay off or do not. To focus on theschool is to sustain attention to improvements in teachingand learning and to signal a broad conception of profes-sional development encompassing the full range of activ-ities, formal and informal, that engage teachers or admin-istrators in new learning about their professional practice(Knapp 2003, p. 112). The school looms large not becauseit is the site of formal professional development activity(although it may be) but because its staff have a stake inthinking wisely and strategically about whether and howthe school is organized to invest in professional learning.

    Second, the school is important because a schools fail-ure to create an environment conducive to professionallearning has high costs. Students bear those costs in theform of inadequate instruction and high teacher turnover.

    Teachers bear the costs in the form of weak instructionalsupport and personal stress. In contrast, schools that arewell organized for professional learning stand to reap thebenefits of demonstrable student gains and enduringteacher commitment. Over the past two decades, evidencehas accumulated that the workplace learning environmentmatters. Schools that support teacher learning and foster aculture of collegiality and continuous improvement arebetter able to support and retain new teachers, pursueinnovation, respond effectively to external changes, andsecure teacher commitment (Johnson and others 2004;Little 1982, 2003; Little and Bartlett 2002; Louis and Kruse1995; McLaughlin and Talbert 1994, 2001; Rosenholtz1989).

    Corresponding to the four goals for teacher learningoutlined above, conceptions of professional developmentin education have both broadened and deepened over thepast two decades. We have moved from a model thatemphasized the acquisition of discrete skills and behaviorsto a more complex vision of teacher thinking, learning,and practice in particular subject domains. We havemoved increasingly away from an individualistic view ofteacher growth and toward a view that emphasizes aschools collective cap...